Autistic Book Party, Episode 22: On the Edge of Gone

Today’s Book: “On the Edge of Gone” by Corinne Duyvis

The Plot: An autistic teenager and her family struggle to survive when a comet hits the earth.

Autistic Character(s): Denise, the protagonist and narrator.

For today’s Autistic Book Party, I have once again partnered with Disability In Kidlit. You can read my review here; the verdict, by the way, is Recommended.

Although Corinne Duyvis is a Disability In Kidlit editor, she was not involved in soliciting or editing this review.

You might be seeing a bit more of me on Disability In Kidlit in the next couple of days.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 21: The Speed of Dark

Today’s Book: “The Speed of Dark” by Elizabeth Moon

The Plot: When scientists develop an experimental treatment that might cure autism in adults, a group of autistic adults working at a pharmaceutical company is pressured to undergo the treatment to keep their jobs.

Autistic Character(s): Lou Arrendale – the protagonist – along with his co-workers.


This is by far my most-requested review, and I’m embarrassed that it took me until now to get to. Whenever I say, “Hi, I’m Ada Hoffmann and I review speculative fiction with autistic characters,” someone always wants to know, “What did you think of The Speed of Dark?” And then I hem and haw, because I’ve Heard A Lot About It – Both Good And Bad – But Haven’t Read It. Now I’ve read it, so I’m actually qualified to have an opinion of my own. That’s a relief.

This book is, in my tiny corner of disability fandom, A Big Deal. Possibly The Biggest Deal. Some people loathe it. Some people adore it.

It’s also a cure decision story.

So. If you want to know why I don’t like cure decision stories, you should read that link. After reading “The Speed of Dark”, well, I still don’t like cure decision stories. (I’ll also note that some autistic people do want to be cured – I was reminded of this last fall at Can*Con. Not all autistic people have the same opinions as each other! The opinions stated here are, as always, my own.)

But there’s a lot more to say about “The Speed of Dark” besides “it’s a cure decision story”. Some of that is good, and some is bad.

Here’s the good first. “The Speed of Dark” is more nuanced than I was expecting. Specifically, it shows an awareness – which I hadn’t seen before in any other cure narrative – of the complicated power dynamics that go into discussions of cures. Here’s a quote from the first scene:

If they aren’t going to listen, why should I talk?
I know better than to say that out loud. Everything in my life that I value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say…
Dr. Fornum crisp and professional, raises an eyebrow and shakes her head not quite imperceptibly. Autistic persons do not understand these signals; the book sys so. I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand.
What I haven’t figured out yet is the range of things they don’t understand. The normals. The reals. The ones who have the degrees and sit behind the desks in comfortable chairs.
I know some of what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know that I can read. She thinks I’m hyperlexic, just parroting the words. The difference between what she calls parroting and what she does when she reads is imperceptible to me.

From the very beginning, Moon writes Lou as a character who is aware of much more than what “autism professionals” believe he should be aware of; who is aware, and critical, of the ableist attitudes that surround him; and who has learned to make compromises, as real autistic people do, in order to navigate that ableist world and survive.

That ableist world has an impact on the major decisions of the story. Lou and his co-workers are not asked politely if they would like to be cured. They are pushed towards a cure, through most of the book, by a deeply unlikeable, pointy-haired CEO who has decided that he will fire them if they choose to remain autistic – even though the job at which they work is specifically one that takes advantage of their autistic strengths in pattern recognition. (Lou is a patterns thinker, and it’s implied that his co-workers all are as well.) It’s a deeply unjust and rather terrifying situation, and also illegal, as many characters in many scenes point out. Doubly so because the “cure” is an experimental treatment, never tested on humans before. There’s no guarantee it will work. There’s no way to predict exactly how much and in what ways the characters will change if they go through with it.

Lou thinks and talks about the injustice of his situation – as he should. He’s deeply confused by it and unsure of what to do for most of the book, but he’s aware that this is something his company should not be doing, that it’s not fair to make him and his co-workers choose between invasive medical treatment and losing their jobs, that the people involved – regardless of what they might say – do not have his best interests at heart. This makes his ruminations about what to do a good deal more interesting than the ruminations of a typical cure decision story protagonist.

This brings us to one of the things I liked less about the book, which is the bizarre disparity in what kind of actions different characters can take against this injustice. Lou is aware that his situation is unfair; everybody in the situation is aware of this. But the people who get to react against it fully – the people who get to say, holy shit, this is fucked up and dangerous and illegal as hell, this is not okay, Lou, let me get you a lawyer – are not autistic. Invariably, for some reason, they’re Lou’s neurotypical friends.

I want to be careful how I say this. It’s not that Moon thinks neurotypicals are great. There are a lot of bad NTs, like the people who devised this experiment in the first place, and Lou’s boss, and Lou’s stalker (yes, there is a stalker subplot, which if nothing else is a welcome distraction from the cure decision). There are also NTs who mean well but are mostly ineffectual, such as Lou’s immediate supervisor (who frustrates me, and that’s all I’m going to say about that). There are also good NTs. This is fine. The good NTs are, without exception, able to stand up for Lou, to insist that what’s happening to him is wrong, and to offer concrete help. They’re never ableist by accident or oblivious to an ableist issue. They even, mysteriously, know more about neurodiversity issues than Lou does:

“Lou, you’ve been holding out on us. You’re a genius.”
“It may be a splinter skill,” I say. Tom’s expression scares me; if he thinks I am a genius maybe he will not want to let me fence with them.
“Splinter skill, hooey,” Luciea says. She sounds angry; I feel my stomach clenching. “Not you,” she says quickly. “But the whole concept of splinter skills is so… antiquated. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses; everybody fails to generalize many of the skills that they have.”

All of which would also be fine, except that the other autistic people in the story never get to have these traits. The autistic people in the story have a community where they genuinely interact, and they can be confused and upset at what’s happening to them, but that’s about as far as their self-advocacy (or their advocacy for each other) ever goes.

The only autistic person who consistently and emphatically says that she does not want a cure, that a cure is not okay, is a woman named Linda. Lou and Linda don’t particularly like each other. Linda’s beliefs about autistic community are so extreme that she actively discourages Lou from making any friends who aren’t developmentally disabled; he should “be with his own kind”. Linda’s friend Emmy, who is not autistic, but has an unspecified related disability, takes these beliefs even further, and takes to following Lou and harassing him because she heard that he has a crush on an NT woman. (Emmy is not the stalker in the stalker subplot, but it’s implied that she could be. I should note here that I’m sure people with these beliefs exist somewhere, but I’ve never encountered them, and I follow a lot of activist-type people who REALLY hate cures.)

Autistic people in “The Speed of Dark” can’t seem to advocate for themselves unless they are unlikeable extremists – and even then, their advocacy is not particularly effective. Yet several NT characters, even though it’s not clear how they learned anything about neurodiversity before knowing Lou, get to advocate for Lou perfectly.

People talk about White Saviors in fiction who somehow get to be better at solving POC’s problems than the POC themselves are. I’m tempted to call Lou’s friends Neurotypical Saviors, but that might be appropriative. Let’s just say that it does not reflect my experiences with autistic and NT people in real life.

Anyway, apart from having some neurotypical savior friends and wondering what to do about being pressured into a cure, Lou gets to do several other interesting things. He competes in a fencing tournament and does quite well! He deals with his stalker in what ends up being a satisfying manner. He has philosophical thoughts about physics. There’s a lot of material in here that’s actually pleasant to read, and Lou spends a lot of time learning and growing, finding that he can embrace change and do things he hadn’t thought he could do.

So what does the learned and grown Lou end up eventually doing about his cure decision? To talk about that, I’m afraid we will have to go behind the cut, because there are SPOILERS. Big ones. ENDING SPOILERS. Seriously – this is a book about which a LOT of people say, “I liked it except for the ending.” So to talk about what I really think of “The Speed of Dark”, I am going to have to tell you the /entire/ ending. In detail. You’ve been warned.


Continue reading “Autistic Book Party, Episode 21: The Speed of Dark”

Autistic Book Party, Episode 19 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Jim C. Hines, “Chupacabra’s Song” (Kaleidoscope anthology, 2014; also available by itself on Amazon and Smashwords)

A story about Nicola Pallas – a minor character from the Libriomancer series – her father’s veterinary clinic, and her discovery of magic. Nicola is visibly different, humming, waving her hands, and going nonverbal under stress. She’s also shown as significantly more human, and more compassionate, than the apparently NT wizards she encounters, and she ends up outsmarting them. There’s a theme of acceptance here, but it doesn’t hit you over the head. [Recommended]


Bogi Takács, “The Need for Overwhelming Sensation” (Capricious, issue 1, September 2015)

[Autistic author.] Autism is not foregrounded in this story, but I did read the narrator as autistic due to eir sensory seeking, intense anxiety when confronted with uncertain/unfamiliar things, the use of a weighted blanket, and other things. Regardless of whether you read it that way or not, it’s a nice story of a nonbinary-gendered person in a queer D/S relationship on a magical spaceship, who gets swept up in events when a political dignitary abruptly requests passage on eir ship for mysterious reasons. I enjoyed it. [Recommended]


Addison Trev, “The Beachcomber of Dong Hoi” (Breath & Shadow, volume 12 issue 4, fall 2015)

[Autistic author.] This is the story of a mentally disabled beachcomber and his weekly routine; a speculative element emerges only near the end. It is a story which is told with precise detail and empathy, and which takes the title character’s concerns seriously. Many developmentally disabled people do end up in life roles like this one, in which they vaguely eke out an existence on the margins of society. It’s important that these characters be portrayed with the kind of dignity that Trev’s narration provides. I did find the ending a bit facile, and some of its implications unfortunate – but it’s the ending that hammers home that yes, this really IS intentionally an autism story. [YMMV]


Rose Lemberg, “The Shapes of Us, Translucent to Your Eye” (The Journal of Unlikely Academia, October 2015)

[Autistic author.] This is a sharp and biting commentary on Western academia which will have academic readers glumly nodding their heads in recognition. An autistic student, or perhaps the ghost of an autistic student, plays a brief but pivotal role. It has to do with the politics of who is and is not welcomed in academic spaces, rather than with who the student is as a person – but is still, I suspect, of great interest to the kind of person who reads Autistic Book Party. [Marginal, but I liked it]


A.C. Wise, “And If the Body Were Not The Soul” (Clarkesworld, October 2015)

I, for once, was dense and did not read the protagonist in this story as autistic – but his asexuality and unusual sensory/bodily experience are impossible to miss. A lot of commenters, including autistic commenters, did see autism. (It could be because my own experience as an autistic person does not include Ro’s kind of touch-phobia – but it is a real and common experience for many!) Whatever you want to call Ro, he’s portrayed with nuance and respect. He is not protrayed as broken or less than the characters who enjoy touch, even if he is insecure enough to feel that way at times – and his insecurity, while providing background tension, is not the driving conflict of the story. Instead, Ro gets to do cool things, make decisions with agency, get involved in racial politics, and figure things out about aliens. [Recommended]

Short Story Spotlight: “Geometries of Belonging”

The Story: Rose Lemberg, “Geometries of Belonging” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 1, 2015)

A year and a half ago, when I reviewed “Twelve Seconds” by Tina Gower, I commented on how the story surprised me by subverting the cure decision narrative when I didn’t think that was possible. “Geometries of Belonging” subverts it in yet another way – or, perhaps more accurately, averts it.

In “Geometries”, Healer Parét, the protagonist, is a mind-healer who can magically cure people of all sorts of mental ailments. But Parét’s cures are imperfect, and impermanent, and often have to be repeated – and, most importantly, Parét never heals without the patient’s consent.

This gets Parét into trouble when he meets a genderqueer autistic teenager named Dedéi – a patient whose parents and grandparents want a cure (both for their gender and for their neurotype), but who desperately and emphatically does not want to be cured, and is capable of saying so, loudly and repeatedly.

Approximately zero story time is spent on the decision of whether to perform or not perform a cure. It is obvious to Dedéi that they do not want to be cured, and it is obvious to Parét that he will not perform mind-healing on a patient like Dedéi who does not want it. The conflict in the story comes, not from agonizing over what it would be appropriate to do with Dedéi, but from the fallout and social consequences of Dedéi and Parét both sticking to their principles. Dedéi’s grandfather is powerful, and the suggested cure is actually a proxy for political machinations which turn out to be quite complex, devious, and sinister indeed.

Aside from the bones of the plot, it’s worth studying the way Parét talks about Dedéi, as a narrator who sees much more about minds and the brokennesses of minds than most people, and who accurately assesses Dedéi’s abilities and differences, yet remains respectful in his descriptions:

She is not calm—her hands shake a bit on the vine, but she is strong, and she maintains her grip. Her speech is mostly flat, but there is intonation. She speaks clearest when she is uninterrupted, and says the most about a topic she loves. She repeats, yes—it seems easier for her to repeat than to make new sentences—but it is not nonsensical. We are having a conversation. She attends to my words and responds in turn.

I see nothing in Dedéi that would merit shame and secrecy and threats of remaking. And just how isolated has she been?

(Note on out of context pronouns: Parét refers to Dedéi as “she” because the language in which Dedéi and their family speak lacks gender-neutral pronouns; later in the story, this decision is reversed, and Dedéi is referred to more properly as “they”.)

Parét himself is not exactly neurotypical (probably allistic, but deeply depressed, reluctant to heal himself, and in need of prompting from his romantic partner in order to take initiative in most matters). His thoughts on minds, magic, and brokenness in general are very interesting. This is a good story on its own merits; but it’s especially worthwhile reading for anyone who is playing with magic systems and wants to understand how mind-healing magic and acceptance of neurodiversity could respectfully coexist.

The Verdict: Recommended

Autistic Book Party, Episode 19: Ascension

The Book: “Ascension” by Jacqueline Koyanagi.

The Plot: A ship engineer stows away hoping to become part of a ship’s crew and is quickly caught up in bigger difficulties than she bargained for.

Autistic Character(s): The author! (As evidenced by, for example, her work for Disability in Kidlit during Autism Month.)

This is the second time I’ve reviewed a book by an autistic author that didn’t have any autistic characters in it. (The first was The Meeting of the Waters by Caiseal Mór). I honestly find these books pretty hard to review. It means I have to break my usual rule of talking only about the representation of autistic characters. How do I do that without being harder somehow on these books (or, conversely, easier) than I am on the others? I don’t know. It’s a work in progress. Bear with me.

I will admit I found “Ascension” rather difficult to get into at first. I bounced off the writing style – especially the way Koyanagi describes strong emotions, which I found telly and clunky. I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because once the protagonist gets on to the ship, there is a lot of shiny. A pilot who fades in and out of existence, an engineer who’s really a wolf, a planet of transhuman surgically modified partygoers, mysterious villains who will blow up planets to get their hands on the protagonist’s sister… Once you get into it, there is plenty here to keep a reader entertained.

There’s also plenty here for those readers who get excited by diverse and complex casts of characters (and, yes, that includes me). The crew, as well as the characters we meet elsewhere, are a diverse and boisterous bunch including many characters of colour, tough and sharply-drawn female characters, queer and polyamorous relationships, even an otherkin character (the aforementioned wolf).

In particular, Koyanagi does a good job of depicting characters with physical disabilities, including the protagonist’s own chronic illness. Alana lives with Mel’s Disorder, a fictional degenerative illness causing pain, tremors, and (if untreated) eventual death. Her disability doesn’t define her, but it does realistically inform the way she looks at the world and the type of difficulties she encounters while trying to stow away and become a ship’s engineer. Being a poor, working-class character, Alana also encounters plenty of conflict simply trying to obtain the medicine that will keep her alive.

Alana’s sister, Nova, is able-bodied and well-off, working as a glamorous “spirit guide”. The conflict between Alana and Nova, which initially comes off as shallow, becomes much more complex and interesting when their attitudes towards their bodies come into play. Alana fights to inhabit her body and to live her life to the fullest despite pain; Nova has a horror of anything merely physical and uses anorexia to try to escape her otherwise-healthy body. While this conflict isn’t explored quite as fully as I would have liked, it is explored and the book’s eventual resolution reconciles the sisters in a perhaps surprising way.

It’s not a perfect book. The writing IS telly. But I think a lot of my readers are going to really enjoy what Koyanagi is doing here. In particular, if you are hungry for better depictions of characters with disabilities in general – real, breathing, complicated disabilities – you’re going to eat this right up. Koyanagi is providing something people need, and I have no doubt she will continue to do so in the future.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 18: The End Games

Surprise! I did not one but two collaborations this month with Disability in Kidlit. The newest one went up on the weekend while I was LARPing, so I wasn’t able to announce it the same day… but better late than never, right?

The Book: “The End Games” by T. Michael Martin

The Plot: Two young brothers attempt to escape from a zombie apocalypse.

Autistic Character(s): Patrick, the protagonist’s five-year-old brother.

Read the full review HERE.

The Disability in Kidlit editors found this book difficult and wanted more than one perspective, so you can also read Harper Lynn‘s review as well. The two reviews are complementary, each focusing on different aspects of the book; I was very engrossed with picking apart the characters and their relationships, as well as the book’s abuse themes, while Lynn focuses more on plot issues.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 17: Silence

Today’s Autistic Book Party was produced in collaboration with Disability in Kidlit’s Autism on the Page event, which runs all April [and is not an April Fool’s joke, unlike my last post 😛 ]

The Book: “Silence” by Michelle Sagara

The Plot: Emma, a teenager dealing with the death of her boyfriend, develops an ability to see and interact with the dead.

Autistic Character(s): Michael, a school friend of Emma’s.

Read the full review HERE.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 16: Hawk

Today’s Autistic Book Party was made possible by Rose Lemberg, who generously donated a review copy of the book because she was interested in knowing specifically what I thought of this one. YES, this DOES work as a method of getting reviews out faster. 😛

Today’s Book: “Hawk” by Steven Brust.

The Plot: Vlad Taltos, an assassin / witch / general-purpose organized criminal, comes up with a cunning plan to get the other organized criminals who are hunting him off of his back.

(This is book #14 of a series that will eventually have 17 parts.)

Autistic Character(s): Daymar, a Hawklord and powerful psychic.

We’ve met Daymar before, when I reviewed “Dragon“, an earlier book in the series. Daymar seemed cool but didn’t appear in very much of that book. Everyone’s been telling me that there is more Daymar in this one. And there is. Sort of.

Vlad’s cunning plan in this particular book involves a lot of psychic stuff, so he naturally calls on Daymar to assist him. Daymar is as friendly, helpful, polite and cool as ever. The problem is… Well, you can go back and read that previous review. Don’t worry, it’s short. You know the part where I said that Daymar is cool because he asks polite questions when he is confused about things, instead of making rude and arrogant assumptions as so many fictional Aspies do? Yet, despite this, Vlad for some unknown reason finds him really annoying?

Yeah, there’s… a lot of that going on here. And it’s more noticeable here than in the previous book. Maybe just because Daymar shows up more, but for whatever reason, even Daymar’s most helpful and considerate attributes seem to drive Vlad off the deep end. Here is a fairly representative quote:

“It’s good to see you, Vlad.”
“You, too,” I lied.
“When I saw Loiosh, I concluded that you wanted to see me.”
“Good thinking.”
“He let me get the location from his mind, so I teleported.”
“Yes,” I said.
“So I was right?”
I nodded.
He sat back, tilted his head, and waited.
“I wanted to ask you about something,” I said.
He nodded. “All right. I’m listening.”
“You wish me to ask you, then?” I said, keeping my face straight.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s up to you. I wasn’t doing anything important. And I’m not in a hurry. So, take as much time as you want.”
Explaining the joke to Daymar seemed like a poor use of my time, so I said, “It goes back to a remark you made some years ago. We were sitting around Castle Black, and you mentioned a Hawk rite of passage you’d undergone.”

It’s not that any specific exchange of this nature is particularly awful, it’s just that they never really stop being like this. Daymar never stops trying very hard to be helpful and considerate, and Vlad never stops quietly mocking him and being annoyed.

Part of this, of course, is that Vlad is an ornery antihero. I mean, he used to kill people for money a lot, among other evil deeds. So it’s not very reasonable to expect Vlad to be the model of understanding and politeness, whether towards people on the spectrum or just towards people in general. In fact, Vlad is usually pretty snarky to everybody; his snarkiness and cleverness is part of what makes him a good narrator. There are many scenes in the book of Vlad hanging out with people whom he genuinely likes, and who are very important to him, and these scenes largely consist of snarky banter and friendly insults going back and forth. So if it was just the fact that Vlad got annoyed and was snarky with Daymar and Daymar didn’t get it, I’d just chalk it up to Vlad being Vlad.

In fact, I have a suspicion that the reason Vlad gets so annoyed by Daymar is precisely because Vlad likes to be snarky to everyone. Daymar likes to be open, honest, and considerate, and Vlad’s usual communication style goes completely over his head. I think that Vlad doesn’t know what to do with a clash of communication styles of this magnitude, so he defaults to being frustrated and annoyed.

The trouble is that Vlad’s annoyance towards Daymar seems to go beyond his usual rudeness and snarkiness to everyone else. For instance, he talks with annoyance about Daymar to other people:

“I’d ask Daymar.”
“Yeah, I’ve been trying to avoid that.”
He chuckled. “I can understand that. I could look for someone else-“
“No, no. We’ll go with Daymar. I told him I’d be needing his help again.”
“That makes me feel better. If I have to deal with you, you have to deal with Daymar. More klava?”

Vlad doesn’t talk like this to other people about any other character, and he does this repeatedly. Even more troublingly, absolutely everyone Vlad talks like this to about Daymar seems to be as annoyed by Daymar as he is. Even when they are ostensibly also in a circle of friends that involves Daymar.

I can’t figure out where this level of animosity comes from, because Daymar is always helpful and cool. He is oblivious to a few things that seem obvious to Vlad and the other organized criminals, but then, he knows a lot of things about psychic communication that Vlad is oblivious to, so that ought to put them on equal footing.

A final problem is that Daymar’s role in the plot is pretty well limited to letting Vlad consult with him about certain matters, finding rare and expensive items for him, and otherwise helping out when requested. He asks for literally nothing in return for this help; he appears to be doing so because Vlad is his friend. (Vlad does thank him, once, briefly, but only near the end of the book.) Meanwhile it is painfully obvious to any reader that Vlad is not his friend and would much rather not be around him.

I can’t explain why this bothers me more than, say, Vlad killing people. Mainly I think that Brust likely does not understand what real-world narratives he is upholding. We all know that being an assassin is not a good thing in real life. But it is so common for autistic people in real life to fall into this pattern, where they believe someone to be their friend and try very hard to help and be nice to that person, but that person turns out to be a bully who is mocking and complaining about them behind their back, or who simply uses them for the one thing they’re especially good at, while actually wanting nothing else to do with them. Considering how common this is, and how common it is for autistic people to be portrayed as annoying enough to merit such treatment, I can’t really sit back and enjoy watching Daymar go through it. I can’t really treat it as funny escapism the way I can when the characters are killing each other. I don’t know.

And we don’t even really get much character development out of Daymar. There’s a little bit – a really interesting couple of paragraphs or so that happen when Vlad asks him about what he’s interested in – but mostly he just shows up when Vlad asks, does what Vlad asks him to, gets made fun of, and goes away again. So while he does show up more often than in previous books, it’s not really a win for readers who happen to be Daymar fans.

I usually really enjoy the Vlad books, so this was kind of a downer.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 15 and a half: Short Story Smorgasbord!

Adrienne J. Odasso, “Letters to Lost Friends & Imaginary Lovers” (Strong Verse, November 2012)

[Autistic author.] A poem. Not about autism, but about connections and the loss of the same. Given that we are so often accused of being unable to form or desire connections in the first place, this is important. It is also very pretty, and very sharp with its evocation of specific emotions. [Recommended]


Alex Dally MacFarlane, “Thin Slats of Metal, Painted” (Crossed Genres, Issue #1, January 2013)

Jess is a young girl with a strong interest in measuring things, who interacts with paintings as though they have feelings and agency. I read her as autistic, though I don’t know if that was the author’s intent. I’m not entirely happy with the way her imaginary life is handled, for reasons that are somewhat idiosyncratic to me and have very little to do with autism per se. But MacFarlane does an excellent job of showing that Jess is highly imaginative and empathic despite her solitary existence. As a result, the story rings true. [YMMV]


A.C. Buchanan (writing as Anna Caro), “Built in a Day” (Luna Station Quarterly Issue 013, 2013)

[Autistic author.] This story involves a strange planet, a time loop, and a person whose past and future selves work together to build a city but cannot directly interact. The ending has the protagonist learning to end her isolation, and I am conflicted about this: part of me wants to say, “Why can’t one of us stay alone and be happy that way, for once?” But even I do not really want to be alone forever, and there is nothing ableist or condescending about the way Caro drives the story to its conclusion. I think my discomfort here is a sign that the author is engaging effectively with themes that are highly emotional for many autistic people, including myself. This makes it, in turn, an important story. [Recommended]


Meda Kahn, “That’s Entertainment” (Strange Horizons, November 2014)

[Autistic author.] A story about disability being used as exploitative entertainment and exploitative entertainment being used as activism. This one didn’t drop-kick me in the feels quite as hard as “Difference of Opinion”, but it’s very smart, very on-point and very sad. [Recommended]


Luna Lindsey, “Meltdown in Freezer Three” (The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, December 2014)

[Autistic author.] Like Macfarlane’s story, but to an even greater extent, “Meltdown” deals with the persistent animism experienced by some autistic people. Unfortunately the whole thing is a little too cartoony for my tastes, and the plot doesn’t entirely hold together. (Why are a pair of small children suddenly trying to violently destroy an ice cream truck? Who is supervising all of these children? And where does Corrine get off saying she “doesn’t believe in magic” when there are already tiny “faeliens” living in one of her ice cream freezers?) Still, Lindsey gets props for writing a protagonist who is more visibly developmentally disabled than most, and for an ending which validates Corinne’s atypical thinking style as few endings can. [YMMV+]

Autistic Book Party, Episode 15: Kea’s Flight

(Pay no attention to the five-and-a-half-month hiatus between Book Party posts. We have had some technical brain difficulties but there is TOTALLY still a Book Party going on in here.)

Today’s Book: “Kea’s Flight” by Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker

The Plot: On a future, theocratic Earth, abortion is banned, but nobody wants disabled children – so the unwanted embryos are sent away to be raised in exile on spaceships. As the disabled children grow up, they band together to take control of their own fates.

Autistic Character(s): Karen Irene “Kea” Anderson, the book’s protagonist; Zachary “Draz” Drazil, her best friend and love interest; and a variety of other minor characters. Many characters are non-neurotypical in other ways as well.

So, after “This Alien Shore“, I was intensely curious to see what an autistic author’s vision of a non-neurotypical society would be. So I snapped up Hammerschmidt and Ricker’s book, which does exactly that.

One thing that’s clear right away: “Kea’s Flight” is a dystopia. The disabled children, or “rems”, on the Flying Dustbin – as Kea’s spaceship is informally named – are allowed very little in the way of autonomy or self-determination. Instead, they are cared for by robots and NT workers, who govern everything according to arbitrary, oversimplified, and totalitarian rules. Any questioning of the rules, pointing out inconsistencies in the rules, or reporting of the multiple harms done by their oversimplified nature is met with a condescending lecture at best, or with removal to an isolation room. No distinction is made between critical thought and active disobedience, and no disobedience is permitted.

To people who were raised with certain forms of disability interventions, this will all be very familiar. Indeed, parts of the book may be emotionally difficult to read.

Friedman, in “This Alien Shore”, assumes that non-neurotypical people somehow built a society to their liking, and hand-waves the details. In contrast, Hammerschmidt and Ricker dive right into the oppression and neglect that they know about, and extrapolate it into the future.

Fortunately, Kea is a plucky protagonist who grabs on to agency in any way she can. Early in the book, she devises a secret way of communicating with her friends. And as more friends and co-conspirators are added to Kea’s circle, they quickly find themselves embroiled in issues affecting the whole ship – including mysterious hackers, malfunctions, and eventually questions about the destiny of the Dustbin itself.

The non-neurotypical characters are well-drawn, with an appealing variety of talents, personalities, and challenges. It’s pleasant to watch them working together, complementing each other’s strengths, and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. (There’s also some reasonably good intersectional content; in particular, the characters turn out to be of a variety of sexual orientations, including asexuality.) Some of the NT characters come off as shallower, and I could have done without some of the scenes from the main villain’s point of view, but that’s rightly not where the book puts its focus. And while the plot occasionally wavers, it builds to a genuinely exciting finish.

There are also one or two interesting, neurodiversity-related flaws here – or at least, traits that come off as flaws at first glance.

First, there is the issue of didacticism. A number of reviewers on Amazon mention that the book seems to lecture the reader at times, or to be preachy. What’s really going on here is that Hammerschmidt and Ricker’s characters are eager to share information and opinions on whatever interests them – including autism, and the value of autistic people’s lives. For characters raised in a place like the Flying Dustbin, all such opinions are hard-won and exciting.

At first the frequent discussions of autism, language, and other topics feels like infodumping. Gradually, though, one learns that it’s really much more than that. Sharing information is not a “dump”, but a meaningful activity; it’s how the characters communicate, how they bond, even how they soothe themselves at tense moments. It makes perfect sense for a book full of autistic people to contain such information. So if any reader feels preached at or confused by digressions, I would strongly advise them to stick with the book anyway, and to see what they can learn.

The second, more serious issue is inconsistency with regards to – and I wish I had a better word for this – functioning levels. Hammerschmidt’s characters can all speak aloud (even though one of them frequently forgets certain words) and perform the activities of daily living without assistance. Kea notes several times  that not all the people on the Flying Dustbin can do these things – but she never quite takes the next step into introducing these more-impaired people as characters in any meaningful way, or exploring what their lives are like, or whether it would be worth inviting some of them into her circle of friends. According to the narration, some of the more-impaired people are still frozen as embryos, to be raised when the Dustbin reaches its destination – but others are already alive and exist in the same space as Kea, and are ignored.

Kea and her friends seem to only intermittently remember that these people exist. At one cringe-inducing moment, one of Kea’s friends describes her as “the most autistic geek of all the rems on this ship – besides Draz, and maybe some of the embryos that are still frozen”. Yet only a few paragraphs later, she says, “I’m not severe autism, just Asperger’s.” Huh?!

Later – at the end of the story, when Kea’s friends have taken over the ship – they discuss how to care for their more severely disabled shipmates. Some good ideas are raised – but the idea of ASKING those shipmates about their needs, or of involving them in the decision-making process at all, is somehow not one of them.

I wish I could say this was a small flaw. It is not. It is a very big flaw. If you’re trying to do disability rights, that needs to mean rights for ALL of us – not just the shiny Aspies. (And I say that as a pretty stereotypically shiny Aspie myself!) And in a setting like the Flying Dustbin – in which the whole point is that all sorts of developmentally disabled people are together, and that they’re together precisely because the NTs on Earth didn’t want them – that goes, like, quintuple.

(And then I start to wonder how the story would have gone if it had been written by Meda Kahn…)

(But, then, we can’t all be Meda.)

Still, when talking about herself and her own experiences, Kea’s observations are often poignant and insightful:

Their rationale for treating us like children was that we acted like children. Of course we did— what choice did we have? Were there any responsible, adult activities to do in this garbage can? Go to work and pay bills? Not applicable. Care for those younger than us? There weren’t any. Marriage and sex? Forbidden. We acted like children because we were treated like children. We acted like children because the role of children was the only role available to us.

And when it comes to putting all sorts of disabled people together and centering their everyday experience, Hammerschmidt and Ricker are the first SF authors I’ve come across who even tried. That’s valuable, and much of the way in which they do it is valuable, even if there is a big, problematic hole in the middle.

Furthermore, by the standards I usually use in reviewing these books, “Kea’s Flight” passes handily. There are autistic characters. They get stuff to do. They’re treated as real people, portrayed with nuance and sensitivity, not reduced to their differences or comically exaggerated. They get to be protagonists, they talk to each other, they form strong and devoted friendships, and in the end they work together to save the day. This is good and worthy stuff, and it’s good stuff that comes authentically out of real-life neurodivergent experience.

So, yeah, in spite of everything, I’m gonna say “go read it”.

The Verdict: Recommended

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.